A Moral Argument for God

I recently listened to an interview with Francis Collins on Point of Inquiry, concerning his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  Francis Collins is an icon of the “scientist who is also Christian” (along with Ken Miller).  He’s a converted atheist, now evangelical Christian, but is pro-evolution, director of the NIH, and the former director of the Human Genome Project.  I was immediately struck by two things:

  1. he was converted to Christianity primarily by the arguments in Mere Christianity, by C.S.Lewis.  In this book, one of the main arguments centers around the Moral Law, it’s universality and internal (to the human) nature of it.  I’ll go into that more later.
  2. he is obviously a very smart guy, so his opinions (especially on evolution) need to be taken seriously (at least once).  So when he claims that the Moral Law cannot be the product of evolution, one had to at least not write that comment off immediately.

So, I went back and read Mere Christianity, which I had done in college some years back. I had an immediate visceral reaction against it, as he laid out these philosophical arguments that seemed much more like word games and bald assertions than anything approaching truth.  I admit that I am steeped in the methods of science, and find arguments that claim surety yet are not testable to be empty.  In reading Francis Collins’ book, I have found that his arguments are essentially identical to Lewis’, but couched in more modern scientific language.  (As a footnote, I was, pleasantly surprised to see that Lewis lumped evolution with gravitation in describing laws of nature.)

Moral Law and the Argument for God

The definition of Moral Law here is:

“denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood; the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty” [pg 24,  Collins quoting from Lewis)

The argument for God based on the Moral Law takes on three components.   The three components of the argument are the following:

  1. Moral Law is universal to all human cultures.
  2. Moral Law includes pure altruistic behavior (think Mother Theresa or Oskar Shindler here), which cannot be explained by evolution
  3. Moral Law is internal to humans.

(There is a fourth point, which Lewis ties specifically to Christianity, which is that we often choose not to obey this Moral Law.  This sets up the idea of free will, and the idea of sin.)

Why is altruism a problem for evolution?  Collins writes:

Agape, or selfless altruism, presents a major challenge for the evolutionist. It is quite frankly a scandal to reductionist reasoning. It cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves. Quite the contrary: it may lead humans to make sacrifices that lead to great personal suffering, injury, or death, without any evidence of benefit. And yet, if we carefully examine that inner voice we sometimes call conscience, the motivation to practice this kind of love exists within all of us, despite our frequent efforts to ignore it.

He outlines three common evolutionary arguments for the origin of Moral Law:


  1. One proposal is that repeated altruistic behavior of the individual is recognized as a positive attribute in mate selection. But this hypothesis is in direct conflict with observations in nonhuman primates that often reveal just the opposite—such as the practice of infanticide by a newly dominant male monkey, in order to clear the way for his own future offspring.
  2. Another argument is that there are indirect reciprocal benefits from altruism that have provided advantages to the practitioner over evolutionary time; but this explanation cannot account for human motivation to practice small acts of con- science that no one else knows about.
  3. A third argument is that altruistic behavior by members of a group provides benefits to the whole group. Examples are offered of ant colonies, where sterile workers toil incessantly to create an environment where their mothers can have more children. But this kind of “ant altruism” is readily explained in evolutionary terms by the fact that the genes motivating the sterile worker ants are exactlythe same ones that will be passed on by their mother to the siblings they are helping to create. [pg 27-28]

So, if you accept these points, then Collins writes:

If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, “If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?”

Encountering this argument at age twenty-six, I was stunned by its logic. Here, hiding in my own heart as familiar as anything in daily experience, but now emerging for the first time as a clarifying principle, this Moral Law shone its bright white light into the recesses of my childish atheism, and de- manded a serious consideration of its origin. Was this God looking back at me? [pg 29]

An Analogy

When I read arguments of this sort, especially the last quote from Lewis, I am offended by the confidence of the language from a totally flimsy and untestable statement:  “The only way in which we could expect [a controlling power] to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way” [emphasis mine].  Really?  How do you get that?  How can you test that claim?  How do you know what options are open for a controlling power?  Aren’t you already assuming that there is something inside us, beyond natural law (i.e. dualism), in order for this to be true?

I’d like to propose an analogy.  I am not sure how far this will go, and where it will break down (as all analogies do), but I think it makes a point.  There is a universal law, which I will call the Eating Law.  According to this law we as humans have an internal voice telling us that we want to eat fatty foods.

  1. The Eating Law is universal to all human cultures.  We differ on the specifics, but we all have the voice telling us what we want to eat (i.e. pringles, Big Macs,  etc…)
  2. Eating Law includes pure gluttony as a behavior (think people who eat themselves to obesity and death) which cannot be explained by evolution.  how could behavior that reduces life expectancy, mating probability, and health possibly be selected for?  There are people who eat so much they can’t even move!
  3. Eating Law is internal to humans.  We can look at the eating behavior, but we’ll never be able to observe the actual urge to eat fatty foods.
  4. We often choose not to follow this law (i.e. we choose to eat salad instead of Big Macs)

This is not simply hunger, which we can see in other animals.  It is an urge to eat, even when you’re not hungry, fatty foods.  Now, re-read Lewis:

“If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?”

Now, we have two such laws, the Eating Law and the Morality Law. Which one is the message from the creator?  How could we test this?  I could probably come up with more examples of universal tendencies which take the form of internal messages to humans, but I don’t need to.  Coming up with just one is enough to show how this argument is completely empty.

I am perplexed that someone as smart as Francis Collins can’t see this.  I am further perplexed that someone would be “shocked by the logic of this argument”.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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6 Responses to A Moral Argument for God

  1. Come on Brian, the urge to eat fatty foods has an obvious evolutionary cause: in ancient times those who stocked up on fats survived periods of drought or other hardships, and so were able to have more children. In a modern man who eats himself to obesity and early death, that primal urge, which once did indeed have a clearly beneficial purpose, is just running amock. The same kind of thing could be said about, say, a man who is obsessed with pornography or a woman who plasters on so much makeup she becomes hideous.

    Perhaps altruism is like that: something beneficial in smaller dosages, with some historic evolutionary advantage, but taken to harmful extremes? It would seem somewhat heartless to say that such behavior is really no more than an obsession, like pornography or obesity. In fact, I think most would be repulsed by the idea. Like suggesting that love is no more than a chemical reaction in the brain, You’ll have to admit there is a strong resistance to that kind of thing in the human psyche, would you not? If you became convinced that all our emotions, including love, were truly nothing more than chemical processes in the brain, and that all goodness, kindness, charity, altruism, etc., were truly nothing more than instincts originally evolved for self-benefit, taken to ridiculous extremes (like obesity), would you relish the idea of living in that world?

    But the reality is, with your “Eating Law”, you haven’t even touched the surface of what Lewis and Collins are talking about. Finding the evolutionary cause for the urge to eat fatty foods is child’s play! I’m surprised you didn’t see it.

  2. brianblais says:

    I think you missed the point. I’m not saying that eating fatty foods doesn’t have an evolutionary advantage, it is “pure gluttony as a behavior (think people who eat themselves to obesity and death)” that doesn’t…clearly it doesn’t, because it results in premature death. This is *exactly* like “pure altruism”, which Collins and Lewis both use – not just doing something for no gain, but giving one’s life for an altruistic aim. In both cases, the extreme gluttony and extreme altruism have no evolutionary advantage. One is used to argue for a divine source for altruism of all intensities, and the other is not seriously argued for a divine origin.

    You make my point later when you say that you think that a little bit of altruism is beneficial, and a lot can be bad, just like food. That’s exactly what I think. It seems then that the extreme altruism is just a rare misfiring in some individuals of a tendency that has a definite evolutionary benefit. This shoots down Collins’ claim that altruism cannot have an evolutionary explanation. Collins backs up his claim by citing the extreme version, which he says can’t be explained, so therefore all altruism is unexplainable (except as a divine gift). If he states that, then he has to concede that extreme (“pure”) gluttony – to the point of death – would imply that all eating urges are a divine gift, and there is no evolutionary explanation.

  3. Ok, I didn’t see what you were saying in your original post. So you admit that “extreme gluttony” is merely a misfiring an urge that has an evolutionary benefit. But do you not feel at least a glimmer of the visceral reaction I feel at the idea that “pure altruism” – when, for example, a man gives his life to save a drowning child (that’s not his own) – is nothing more than a “misfiring of an evolutionary urge”? I don’t mean to say that it might not be true, only that I don’t WANT it to be true.

    It’s a little like the feeling I get when I think about eugenics and euthenasia. Could the human race be “bettered” by selective breeding, and the culling out of unwanted genetic elements, the way we improve other species? Approached with cold dispassion, it really does sound doable. Why does it seem then, that the execution of such a program cannot be anything but evil? If we can eradicate genes that give rise to debilitating defects that undeniably cause suffering by nipping them in the bud whenever they appear, would it not be *good* to do so? Would not future generations praise our efforts? Yet the thought that this is the way the world really is is frightening to me. I am repulsed by it. Why is that?

    It seems to me that this is what Lewis and Collins are thinking about.

    I don’t know if you were ever as big a fan of Lewis as I was as a child. In the book “The Silver Chair” there’s a scene where the heros are trapped in an underground world, ruled by an evil enchantress. They have been drugged, or bewitched somehow (I forget which), so that they have forgotten their former lives above ground. One of them ponders a lamp that’s lighting the room, and a dim memory of sunlight creeps in. When he mentions it to the evil enchantress, she makes an argument something like “What is this ‘sun’ you talk about? Where is it? It hangs in the sky? How silly! There is no such thing, you’re are just imagining it. You see this lamp here, how it illuminates the room, and you imagine a bigger, brighter lamp, but that’s just your imagination. When you talk about the ‘sun’, you cannot tell me what it is, how it hangs in the air — you can only tell me how it is like the lamp. You see? The lamp is the real thing, there’s nothing in this dream of a ‘sun’ that’s not copied from the lamp.” And so on.

    That scene depicts, I think, what Lewis and Collins are talking about. In some people (I would include myself) there is a real, and very strong, desire for something for which we have little to no evidence. When we see a selfless act, when we hug our children, or enjoy the company of a good friend, there’s something that *yearns* for some meaning to it all. We look into the microscope and telescope, and yes, we have to admit, it’s all there in chemicals and physics and so forth, but that doesn’t answer the yearning we feel, and it’s still there when we leave the laboratory.

    So what Lewis and Collins are doing, I think, is trying to construe the yearning itself as evidence. We WANT there to be more, so there must BE more. We NEED there to be more, so there must be something to fill that need.

  4. brianblais says:

    Let me start with the end of your post, and go from there. You suggest that Lewis and Collins are using their yearning for more to be evidence. “We WANT there to be more, so there must BE more.” I think if we have made any headway in science it is on this point: there is a significant difference between wanting something to be true and it actually being true. That’s why we have phrases like wishful thinking, self deception, and self delusion. As a scientist, I am interested in what is true. If it turns out that the truth is distasteful, well, that’s just the way it is. In this case, however, I don’t think that the truth need be distasteful.

    “When we see a selfless act, when we hug our children, or enjoy the company of a good friend, there’s something that *yearns* for some meaning to it all. ” We are deeply social creatures. It makes sense that these social interactions would give us positive feelings. There is some very good research on chemicals like oxytocin and its causal role in the experience of feelings of connection, love, etc… Now, just because I can describe the chemical process of these feelings, it doesn’t diminish the feelings. Just like, I can appreciate chocolate even though I know that taste and digestion are biochemical processes. In fact I can appreciate it on many levels.

    As a, probably lame, analogy – it’s like when I watch a sci-fi movie. I can appreciate the experience of it, but I can appreciate it more if they get the details right and I understand the details. I spend a couple of days in my physics class ripping the movie Armageddon to shreds, from a physics point of view. Students have asked me afterward if I enjoy any movies, and I tell them that I actually like the movie! I’d like it a whole lot more if they got the science right.

    “But do you not feel at least a glimmer of the visceral reaction I feel at the idea that ‘pure altruism’ – when, for example, a man gives his life to save a drowning child (that’s not his own) – is nothing more than a ‘misfiring of an evolutionary urge’?” Of course I feel a reaction – I’m the result of the same evolutionary process that gives rise to these social instincts. It *feels* significant to me, but that doesn’t make it significant in the same way that it feels, if that makes any sense. I get a larger sense of significance when I realize that this blind process of evolution has resulted in creatures that are aware of it, that can create meaning out of the randomness, and can care. Knowing this process also lets me see where we can choose to not follow the urges that have reproductive value, such as for example, rape. We are in a position now to make choices that evolution is blind to, because it is on a completely different time scale. That also frees us to consider larger purposes of good, such as planetary good, which one doesn’t get from religiously motivated ideas.

    The truth matters.

  5. I hear you. I’m not saying what Lewis and Collins are doing is not wishful thinking, self-delusion, etc., etc. I’m just saying that, well, I think I understand what they are doing and why. Like when you see another man put his hand to his back, stretch and wince and you can almost feel it with him.

    In other posts you say you were raised a Catholic, and that your wife is still a Catholic. I don’t know what your upbringing did for you, but mine screwed me up. I am filled with a longing that cannot be satisfied, seemingly.

  6. brianblais says:

    Yes, I understand why people do wishful thinking…but there are very good reasons why we should not indulge them in that, especially when they then turn around and say that everyone else should think the same way, or that we should have policies that reflect that wishful thinking. That’s dangerous!

    I think everyone is “screwed” up in various ways, and at some point we have to put aside the past and deal with the reality that is here, both externally and internally. At some point I decided that it didn’t do any god anymore to blame my parents, and that I had to take responsibility for my failings. It really does come down to that trite saying “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”. ..except without the God part. 🙂

    As for longing, I find that learning more about the universe, from the big to the small, and trying to teach it to people, gets me incrementally closed to filling that longing. I think it will never be filled, but that is a good thing…it keeps you asking questions, exploring, challenging yourself to look at things in a different way.

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